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Living Well

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

I was the closing speaker at the recent annual meeting of the Arizona Osteopathic Medical Association. I talked with my colleagues about my work as a humanitarian clown where I learned how to make healing connections with people in a short period of time.

In contemporary medical practice, physicians don’t have much time to establish relationships. Spending time and talking with patients is not reimbursable, so you have to see more people in a short time make a diagnosis, order expensive tests, procedures, pills, and do the paperwork. The industrialization of medicine is stealing our spirit as healers, and the pursuit of profitability is reducing medicine to just another industry. The practice of medicine is not an industry, it is a ministry and not spending time with patients is stealing our spirit.

Nearly half the physicians in this country say they are burned out and would rather be doing something else. Of all occupations and professions, the medical profession consistently hovers near the top of occupations with the highest risk of death by suicide. I suggested an alternative to the current demoralization and despair was to return to the time-honored principle of connecting with patients at a heartfelt level and by using clowning principles you could do that in 10 minutes. Such a relationship not only magnified our healing power but reminded us of why we came into the profession.

Before closing, I asked attendees to participate in an exercise that would give them an opportunity to personally connect with someone they didn’t know at an open-hearted, soulful level. The experience was enlightening, and at the end, I was moved to say something I had never previously shared from the platform

I told them about my chronic cardiomyopathy and my failing heart. I assured them there was no definitive expiration date, just an awakening to the fact that I had a shelf-life. I have not been secretive about my condition by the same token I don’t spend much time talking about it.

I don’t want to inspire people’s pity, condolences or distancing themselves from me because of their own difficulties with mortality.

This is my truth, but my illness doesn’t define who I am. I am still here, doing what I love to do; it gives my life meaning and completely engaged in what I am doing in the here and now.

Living well is about staying open to the experience of life.

Magical Healing Weekend

Tuesday, November 6th, 2018

        

For a guy loves to go fishing, it’s been a long time since I felt a fish on a tight line. Six months ago, at a Passover Seder, I made the decision to go to the promised land with two old friends. We set an inviolable date to go fishing the last weekend in October. So last weekend we went up to Roosevelt Lake for some great bass fishing; my face was wreathed in smiles the whole time.

Before returning home, we decided to go to the San Carlos Apache Reservation, which was close by. It’s a place that two of us had worked together 40 years ago. We felt this nostalgic urge to return, and that decision kept this magical trip going.

The old hospital is now boarded up behind a chain-link fence as was the staff housing.  There is a brand-new hospital now administered directly by the tribe with state-of-the-art equipment and specialists. We spoke to some nurses in the cafeteria and told them we had worked in the old hospital 40 years ago and asked about families we knew. Turns out an old friend’s family was holding a Sunrise Ceremony this weekend. She wasn’t sure if the ceremony would still be going on, but the dance grounds were close by and we decided to go.

The Sunrise Ceremony is one of the few Apache rituals that survived the government’s suppression of Native American ceremonies. It is a 4-day initiation to celebrate a young woman’s coming-of-age. It is an intense and arduous ceremony physically and spiritually. During this ceremony, the initiate becomes ‘Changing Woman’, who survived the great flood in an Abalone shell and gave birth to the Apache Tribe. During this ceremony the initiate becomes the embodiment of Changing Woman; she enters the girl’s body and ensures the perpetuation of their tribe, she restores strength and has the power to heal.

We arrived just before the dancers were leaving, and the family was lining up to receive the congratulations of the community. I felt a tug on my arm and look around to see my friend George. We greeted and schmoozed and then he stood in line with us and introduced us to his family.

We shook hands with the family and when I came to Changing Woman, I see her in her buckskin, face painted with white clay and corn pollen, an Abalone shell on her forehead, an exquisitely beaded necklace, and felt the power of their story.

I asked her to bless my heavy heart; shyly she reaches out her hands, and with her acknowledgment bring them to my chest. I felt the same energetic jolt I did when the Medicine man pulled the fire stick out of my chest during my Native American Church healing ceremony. (Schlagbyte, 12/25/2017).

I am sensitive to these ways, they move me, but there are many ways, and they all open you to appreciating the awe and mystery of life. Find one that speaks to you. You can learn to do the healing dance if you can hear the music.

The Healing Corps

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

In 2015 I co-founded a nonprofit organization called the Clown Town Healing Fest (CTHF), a community health initiative that created public events bringing a wide array of healthcare resources together to educate people in how to stay well before they got sick. This was a practical demonstration of the future of medicine which is the paradigm shift from an expensive, dysfunctional, interventional medical model to a preventive one.

We organized this weekend extravaganza that brought thousands of people from the community together to participate in hands on demonstrations that ranged from modern medical modalities to traditional healers and therapists of every description. There were panels, discussions, clowns, parades and it was enthusiastically received.

The day before the public event we conducted a daylong Clown Healing Workshop for healthcare professionals. We used clowning principles as the vehicle for establishing meaningful connections with people in short periods of time that would not only to magnify their healing power but restore their passion and enthusiasm for their work many of whom were feeling disconnected from their patients and burned out from the overwhelming strain of bureaucracy.

At the end of these workshops participants were “certified“ as “Truth Fairies, and at the Festival the following day we conducted a “Truth Clinic” where they could practice their newfound skills. It’s healing impact on both “patients” and clinicians was astounding. Many later joined us in conducting Truth Clinics in parks, fairs, homeless shelters and the results equally impactful.

Alas, the organizational demands of running such an event were taking us away from what we were doing best. So, we are now moving in a direction that allows us to expand our training programs to reach a wider range of community health workers and caregivers. We have gathered a dynamic, multigenerational Board of Directors that is opening us to a wider audience. Reflecting this change in focus we have changed our name to The Healing Corps (our tag line… Sustaining the Heart of Health).

Look us up at ( www.thehealingcorps.com ) and see what we’re doing and join us in the continuing evolution of our vision of humanizing healthcare and promoting healing. And talking about Sustaining the Heart of Health, I want to tell you that for me personally these changes have intensified my passionate involvement in the here and now and allowing me to breathe more easily.

Drowning in Bullshit

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

Is there anyone who is not infuriated or disgusted by the overwhelming political bullshit that is dividing this nation? My way of dealing with this demoralizing deluge is to shut down the propaganda machines that make me sick (no more daily news) and using the time to focus on my own BS that’s also making me sick.

For the last 30 years I’ve had high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels that have been controlled by medication, a regular exercise program, meditation practice, doing work I love, and playing a lot. What I have not done is to change my diet to reduce my salt intake. I love corn beef and pastrami, pizza, bratwurst, salami, processed cheeses, sour pickles, potato chips, onion dip, creamy soups and salad dressings (add more blue cheese crumbles). I rarely go shopping and never look at the packaged ingredients.

My life’s work has been as an advocate for preventive health; to inspire people to becoming the principal agents in their own healing. My mantra, don’t wait until you get sick and then depend on doctors to prescribe pills and procedures to make you well.

So far, I have been able to get away with my dysfunctional eating habits, but now my heart is on overload and weakening. Last week, my cardiologist told me she was doing everything she could to help me, but I was not doing everything I could to help myself. She knew I was planning a family vacation over Thanksgiving and said to me if I were to be making the trip next week, she would advise against it.

It was a game changer… not make this trip, absolutely unfathomable. We have been planning it for almost a year, rented a palatial, seaside villa near Puerta Vallarta, Mexico for a week to gratefully celebrate our togetherness. I’d walk 100 miles on my knees to make this gathering happen, so changing my eating habits seemed imminently doable and now was the time.

Yesterday, I went to my favorite kosher delicatessen for brunch and instead of smoked white fish on a garlic bagel, ordered low-salt cheese blintzes. You don’t have to wait until your drowning in your own bullshit to be able to make healthful life changes. It’s never too late to participate in the healing dance.

Football Makes America Great

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

If you don’t recognize the name Colin Kaepernick you are neither a sports fan or watch TV commercials. Kaepernick is a professional football player, the former star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Two years ago, he drew the attention of the nation when he got down on one knee and raised his fist to the right hand during the playing of the national anthem during the pregame ceremonies. This action angered a lot of people who called him everything from unpatriotic to treasonous (and other far more hurtful things). The NFL blackballed him, and he hasn’t played since.

I admit I too felt saddened, Sunday football is an All-American ritual, a day we get together in community to cheer our team. In football stadiums around the Country, people of every color and creed embrace one another in a sense of joyful unity and shared purpose. But such momentary game day camaraderie is well planned marketing effort that sells an image of mutual respect that is rarely demonstrated when we return home. In our communities we are still fighting social injustice and inequality.

What Kaepernick did was publicly address those inequities and make us face the need of becoming a Nation whose ideals we actually live every day. I think his action is a statement about what makes America great. This is just a manifestation of this generation’s civil rights activism. The demonstrations of the 60’s were also wildly unpopular in the beginning, but are now seen as essential in the ongoing struggle for racial equality in this country.

Last week, Nike, one of the world’s largest conglomerate and trendsetters chose Colin Kaepernick to become a company spokesperson. They made a commercial showing the infamous kneeling clips to which they added this tagline “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”.

The public’s reaction was again one of outrage… Nikes stock fell, people marched in the streets and burned their products, but I think what they succeeded in doing was to make Colin’s story into a hero’s journey. In America we stand up to fight injustice even if it means enduring enormous sacrifice because that’s what makes America great.

A Schmuck in the Waves

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

Just got back from a lovely, relaxing week in Huntington Beach, reading, hanging out with friends and going to the beach. Swimming and body surfing in the ocean are among my favorite things to do. Looking at the vibrant beach scene, I decide that the next time I’m here, I’ll bring along a boogie board.

Southern California beaches are home to some of the finest surfers in the world, the waves are big, the current is strong, and the undertow can be powerful. I’m a good swimmer, do laps in an Olympic size pool and have for many years; this is my element. My wife takes a picture of me holding the Boogie board before I plunge into the ocean. I’m looking confident (maybe even with a bit of a swagger) and from a distance I’m still looking pretty good for an old dude; get closer and you can hear my sometimes-labored breathing.

I paddle out, feeling free and frolicking in the waves as the strong current carries me far down the beach and I ride the waves into shore. When I get off the board, I’m standing in ankle-deep water, the crashing waves behind me and the returning undertow in front of me create a cloudy turbulence causing my heels to dig into the sand. Unable to see my feet in the churning waters I get a little out of balance and drop my boogie board to regain my equilibrium. When I stand up I can’t easily pick up the board because it too is being sucked into the sand. Having difficulty extricating my feet and boogie-board simultaneously I’m getting shorter and shorter of breath.

I managed to extricate myself but by the time I get out I’m breathing so heavily I just crash on the beach. My old certainties and confidence not only illusory but perhaps delusional.  I have always functioned under the impression that with intelligence, effort and commitment you can overcome whatever your limitations and hardships. Turns out that such certainty is only a tribute to the arrogance of the ego.

Aging is nature’s way of taming the ego, add any physical limitations and it intensifies the process. The ego is the manager of our lives, it was never intended to be the boss. Lying supine and breathless on the beach I feel like a bit of a schmuck. Surely, I can negotiate these new ego-taming waters and ask for a little help from my friends without feeling minimized because of it.

I want to be truthfully present in the here and now, loving life and appreciating every moment.

Have a great week Relatives… reach out and touch someone’s heart today

I say this for all my relations, Mi Takuye Oyasin

Skid Marks

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

To escape the triple digit heat in Phoenix, Elaine and I visited friends in Jerome, Arizona. This is an old copper mining town that’s built on the side of the mountain and whose legendary characters left when the mine closed in the early 20th century. New characters have made their way to this little town of 500 permanent residents, among them my friends Jack and Jamie.

Just before we walked out the door, Jack called to tell me there was a fatal accident on the northbound interstate and that traffic was backed up for 13 miles. He suggested we take the back road even if it took a little longer. We were in no rush, and it’d been a long time since we traveled to the Mogollon Rim and White Mountains.

This is a place we love and have come to as a family since our kids were small; camped and fished here in the summers and skied and snowmobiled in the winters. Whatever the season, evenings were spent around the fire, laughing, groaning, singing, and storytelling. As we drove through this spectacular wooded fairyland we reveled in the nostalgia, but also deeply grateful to still be making this trip together in the here and now.

We got to Jerome just before a seasonal monsoon thunderstorm rolled in and settled in with drink and nibbles listening to the rain dance and telling stories old and new. Jack and I have known each other for 30 years when we were both beginning our careers in Phoenix, and there is lots to reminisce about. Mostly however, we found ourselves telling each other new stories about where we are at this moment in our lives.

Jack is an internationally recognized authority in dental public health and preventive medicine. He was director of the Arizona Department of Health, and recently retired as the Dean of a dental school. “Retired” is not quite descriptive of who he is and what he still does (consults, Board memberships, runs a non-profit). Now, he is now campaigning for a seat on the Jerome Town Council. He demonstrates better than anyone I know how to be passionately engaged with what he is doing in the present. He is my Energizer Bunny, reminds me how important it is to be totally involved in living my life right now and continuing to tell that story.

So, here’s the rest of the story; on the way home I looked for some sign/remnant of the fatal accident that had occurred just 48 hours earlier. The only thing I could see where the fatality had occurred were some skid marks. It made me think that as much planning as we do to make things happen, life is unpredictable, and the task is to live it as it opens itself up to you.

Bypass the roads that are now closed and travel those that spontaneously open themselves up to you. Stop all the planning and noise, and with passion and purpose tell your story… about the things you believe, have experienced and done because those are what we leave behind…leave good skid marks.

The V-Selfie

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

Let’s take a break from demoralizing daily news and explore a subject that invariably brings a smile to my face. A couple weeks ago I read about the newest manifestation in the sexual liberation of women that made my jaw drop. The new thing in dating is sending a full-frontal view of your vulva as a way introducing yourself to someone you haven’t yet met.

It’s called a V – Selfie, V stands for vulva which is the correct anatomic description of the vaginal area, but not a word that has made its way into the popular vernacular. Vulva is not a word that inspires my imagination (maybe because it sounds too much like vulgar), the preferred colloquialism conjures up a softer, warmer nest of purring possibilities.

I understand that dating rules have changed in the last 50 years (I’m old, but not a prude), and I think daydreaming about its treasure intensifies its impact and appreciation. Imagination is the ultimate aphrodisiac. It’s not what you see but what you don’t that makes the prize so much sweeter
Alas, in our culture we don’t wait for anything anymore, there is no such thing as delayed gratification… especially when it comes to sex. What can you learn about sex in minutes, the mechanics of copulation. Pre-teens are learning about sex from porn sites, and what they are learning is that sex is an aggressive, wham-bam, hump and bump grind replete with screaming fake orgasms, it teaches a sexuality that is devoid of intimacy.

  • So, I wondered what do you say on a first date to somebody whose crotch you’ve already seen?
  • It’s so nice to finally meet you, I couldn’t wait to see your face up close too.
  • You have the most amazing pair of labia I have ever seen; not fragmented and droopy so plump and fluffy.
  • How did you manage to shave so closely, there was no stubble at all? Did you Photoshop that V-selfie?
  • I loved your well-coiffed pubic goatee. It’s such a courageous act in this age of the perpetually prepubescent look.

I’m just saying you don’t have to see everything right away; anything that’s truly important is worth waiting for. Sharing body fluids like two jet planes getting refueled in midair is different than making love. Connecting lovingly comes from opening your heart, not your legs.

Tattoos “R” Us

Friday, July 6th, 2018

Toy’s “R” us just went out of business, but tattoos are in, and they are becoming a big business. When I was a kid, tattoos were something sailors got on shore leave or gangbangers as an initiation rite. They featured hearts, daggers, names, fierce animals, and I wondered why anyone would want to be branded for a lifetime with a reminder of the person they once were but may no longer be.

Nowadays, tattoos have emerged as complex works of art, and men and women of every nationality from performers to university professors, athletes, businessmen, and doctors have them (often more than one), and you don’t have to seedy tattoo parlors on the wrong side of town. The NYT (5/13/18) reported that tattoo artists are now invited to wedding receptions where they are provide as a party favors. The host and the artist create a personalized emblem for the event, and guests can get inked in the moment.

I have given up my old perceptions about tattoos and what they say about people who have them…If a tattoo that has powerful meaning for you, makes a statement about who you are and makes you feel good, why not?

The skin is the largest organ in the body, but it’s a limited commodity and sooner or later you’re going to run out of display space; which means you now have to decide whether this event is so memorable (as compared to those that may yet happen) that it’s worthy of immortalization.

And what about the potential for the commercialization of this limited resource. With the burgeoning growth of tattooing, soon big companies will be willing to pay you to use your body as a billboard for their brand; and depending on size and location will determine how much they’ll pay you for these indelible advertisements. What if your body is covered with tattoos of such artistic value that people will bid for your skin as an art piece, and upon your death they get to tan and display it.

Truth be told I also have one; it’s small and discretely placed where few can see it. It’s a turtle, which has been a powerful totemic animal for me since my days in the Indian Health Service and represents my transformative journey from doctor to healer. Now I’m thinking of getting another…a flamingo which symbolizes the last 30 years of my life when in addition to being a physician I became a humanitarian clown. Clowning is the best way I know to get out of my head and into my heart to connect with people at a soulful level. I have clowned in hospitals, prisons, orphanages, street markets, war zones and disaster areas, and doing this work lifts my spirit because it reminds me that even in the most difficult circumstances we are reminded of our shared humanity. Clowning is a play date for my heart.

My clown persona is a flamingo ballerina who wears pink tights, a tutu, and flamingo headdress… it’s ridiculously funny; my question is where to put it, and how big to make it.

P.S. I still think fewer says more than being covered from head to toe with them; the skin is a limited-edition notebook on whose pages we ought to write poetry, not novels.

Untether Your Mind

Monday, June 18th, 2018

A dear friend told me I had to read Michael Pollan’s new book “How to Change your Mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence”. Pollan is a best-selling nonfiction author who writes about the natural world and the global state of mind but until he wrote this book he’d never taken a psychedelic substance.

Psychedelics, are a subject I’m interested in and have written about. This is a well written book that makes the brain science understandable and beautifully explains the mysticism and spirituality of the psychedelic experience. However, it’s important to remember that although the brain science may be “new”, the use of psychedelics (I prefer the term entheogens…from entheos, the divine within) have been around since earliest recorded history. Indigenous cultures have used these psychoactive, naturally occurring plants and creatures to transcend ordinary consciousness and communicate with the spiritual world.

Pollan has now taken LSD, psilocybin, and the crystallized venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad. He did not come lightly to this transformational journey. He was afraid and anxious and      describes himself as a “reluctant psychonaut”. Each time he participated it was preceded by worry and self-doubt; he realized after that his fear and reluctance were his ego trying to convince him not to do it because it was going to challenge its need for control.

What appears to be happening, is that the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence drops away, and that an older more “primitive” part of the brain emerges that’s analogous to a child’s mind. This is a place in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and the capacity for awe and wonder is stronger. Children are basically tripping all the time in this egoless realm.

Pollan makes the case for its efficacy in treating people with addictions, end-of-life anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He is not an advocate for the recreational use of psychedelics but says that in the hands of trained professionals they are a potent adjunctive therapy. I agree that the recreational use of psychedelics is ill advised, but I also think that you don’t have to be diagnosed with an illness in order to have access to them.

In the right place, with the right people, and used in a ceremonial way, these entheogens can have a life-changing impact, and I see ceremonial use of entheogens as completely different from recreational use. Ceremonies and ritual set the stage for coming to these awesomely powerful substances in a sacred way which magnifies the likelihood that the experience will be enlightening, even if it’s scary.

I have used entheogens infrequently over the last 50 years but after reading Pollan’s book I ‘ve decided to reacquaint myself with these sacred plants. I’m at the stage of my life in which my once familiar landscape has changed profoundly. I want to open my mind and look at my world through the eyes of an untethered child.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.